Dear Dot: Eco-friendly Tick Treatments?

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Let Island biologist Dick Johnson give you nightmares (and good advice) about our unwelcome Island visitors.

Dear Dot,

Is there something I can put on my lawn that doesn’t harm wildlife, including my pets or grandchildren, but that deters ticks?

—Rose, Vineyard Haven

Dear Rose,

I know I’m supposed to love all bugs because they play a part in the ecosystem and blah blah blah but c’mon … Ticks? Ugh. 

While most of us go out of our way to avoid ticks, Island biologist Dick Johnson seeks them out. Johnson is the tick guy on the Island, spending his days hunting these tiny terrorists to better understand where they are and what they’re doing. The Lone Star nymphs (such a glorious name for such a nasty creature) are already out by early April. The deer tick nymphs emerge a bit later — mid to late May, says Johnson — and are dangerous because they’re so tiny at that stage. Be vigilant. If you, your kids and grandkids, or pets have been outside, follow up with a tick-check. Because the deer tick nymphs are the size of poppy seeds, and like to nestle into our bodies’ warm humid crevices (armpits or groin, for example), Johnson recommends that we feel for them when we shower. If there’s a tiny bump that wasn’t there yesterday, it’s likely a tick nymph.

A tick “bite” is something of a misnomer, says Johnson. What ticks actually do sounds like something from a horror movie. With their barbed “hands,” ticks essentially breaststroke into your skin, then jams in a mouth part called a hypostome — Johnson says it acts like a straw. Except that this straw also has hooks akin to a miniscule chainsaw. Compounds in the ticks’ saliva make our blood pool beneath the skin and the tick begins to sip, a delicate feast that can last three to ten days. “If [ticks] were the size of a cow, they’d be really scary,” Johnson tells me, ensuring that I will begin to have nightmares of cow-sized ticks.

What can we do to prevent these blood-thirsty, chainsaw-wielding non-cow-sized-but-still-horrible ticks? I’m glad you asked, Rose!

The first step is in your yard, Johnson says. If you’re in a tick-prone area, get rid of leaf litter and pine needles — the yard detritus that offers the damp shady conditions that ticks love. I’m reminded, however, that eco-gardening experts urge us to leave that stuff for precisely the reason that it’s ideal habitat for so many of the other insects we love (or at least don’t actively detest). 

At minimum, if your yard abuts a wooded area, create a three-foot wide strip of gravel or large wood chips to act as a barrier to ticks attempting to trek into your yard. This can also serve as a visual reminder to you that beyond is tick territory. 

Ticks aren’t typically on lawns (more on that later) but they will seek out certain plants. Rhododendron is a popular tick hangout, as are the invasive plants Russian olive and bittersweet, giving us yet another reason to banish those from our yards.

Unfortunately, keeping Lone Star ticks at bay isn’t so simple. Johnson calls them the “cheetahs” of the tick world because they move so fast. They also are far more likely to be found on lawns. “For years, we’ve been telling people they don’t need to worry [about ticks] on their lawns,” says Johnson. The increase in Lone Star ticks is upending that thinking. Lone Star ticks react to carbon dioxide. So if you’re breathing or sweating on your lawn, he says, “they will come after you, across the lawn from the woods, and seek you out and bite you.” Yes, that’s right: Lone Star ticks will seek you out and hunt you down like micro-assassins. Johnson says people on Chappy complain that they can’t walk to their mailbox without coming across a Lone Star tick. 

If you have a major tick problem, or if Lone Stars have moved into your territory, there are a few options available to you to reduce their numbers.

Keep your grass short, no taller than 3 to 3 ½ inches. 

Encourage birds in your yard. Ground-feeding birds like sparrows, that pick about in leaf litter, feast on ticks. 

Johnson is leery about the impact of larger birds, such as turkeys and quail, which he says some people are employing to tackle ticks: “That’s making me very nervous because Lone Star ticks in particular feed on birds so they may be eating some of the ticks but at the same time, you’re feeding a whole bunch of ticks.” He doesn’t yet have evidence but he has a pet theory that the turkeys are responsible for moving Lone Star ticks around the Island. A dead turkey that Johnson recently examined had five Lone Star ticks attached to it. 

“Most ticks die from not getting a meat blood meal,” he explains. “Between the different stages as they hatch, they have to get a blood meal to become a nymph, which I call the teenagers. Teenagers have to get a meal before they become an adult so they have to feed twice and most ticks don’t make it — they either get eaten or just don’t ever get the blood meal they need to live. When you put out a quail or something like that, you may just be keeping more ticks alive. So the question is how many ticks does the quail eat versus how many ticks feed on it and increase the population?”

For really difficult tick problems, Johnson says, you might want to pull out the big gun, a chemical called permethrin. “It’s actually a type of plant, a relative of the chrysanthemum,” he said, though in North American it’s been reconfigured as a synthetic pesticide. Johnson says it’s considered safe for children and dogs (permethrin is highly toxic to cats), though Consumer Reports noted that permethrin is an endocrine disruptor so use should be careful and judicious and a last resort. Another problem is that permethrin is indiscriminate — killing our beloved pollinators as effectively as it does the dastardly ticks. 

Still, it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology determined that clothing treated with permethrin was 58% more effective at protecting the wearer than non-treated clothing. You can purchase permethrin-treated clothing from manufacturers (including LLBean) or purchase a permethrin spray and apply it to your clothes, being careful to follow instructions. 

If you do find a tick has chosen you as its next blood meal, remove it by using tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pulling straight up. It takes 24 to 48 hours for a deer tick attached to you to begin transmitting Lyme disease so sooner is better than later to check your body for ticks. If you are bitten, get doxycycline as a prophylactic, Johnson says. “There’s a good study in The New England Journal of Medicine that showed an 85% reduction in incidence of Lyme disease with people who were treated within the first couple of days with a dose of doxycycline,” he says. 

Of course, it isn’t just Lyme disease that’s of concern. Though less prevalent, ticks can also carry babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. Lone Stars can carry tularemia and anaplasmosis, two illnesses that can lead to death.  

Johnson is optimistic that a new vaccine against Lyme disease (already available to our dogs) will be available in three to five years. 

While we wait for this vaccine to complete clinical trials, let’s review our options: A gravel or mulch barrier, removal of plants where ticks like to congregate, encouraging ground-feeding birds such as sparrows and discouraging larger birds like turkeys and quail. Donning permethrin-treated clothing when spending time in tick territory.

But let’s not overlook some simple steps: When you’re gardening or hiking, wear long pants, socks, and a long-sleeved shirt at minimum. Do a daily tick check of yourself and others for ticks, including their favorite bodily hideouts (maybe let other adults check their own private parts, unless you’re particularly close). Johnson himself  is well covered in permethrin-treated clothing that he sends to InsectShield (clothes remain treated through roughly 60 launderings) and even though he’s logged many hours in tick habitat intentionally handling thousands of ticks, “we don’t get bitten,” he says. 

May we all be so lucky.

Avoidantly,

Dot

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